Thomas Dolby interview, Thomas Dolby

This is Thomas Dolby DVD

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Yes, that Thomas Dolby: the one who sang "She Blinded Me with Science." 

It's a bit of a shame that such a talented and influential musician has been relegated to the status of an '80s one-hit wonder by the general public; in addition to recording several wonderful albums of synth-driven pop, Dolby also did quite a bit of work on other folks' albums. In fact, Bullz-Eye's opportunity to talk to Dolby came about not because of his music but, rather, because of his career as a producer. 

Dolby helmed Prefab Sprout's 1985 pop masterpiece, Steve McQueen, which has recently been re-mastered and reissued as a double disc set, with the band's frontman, Paddy McAloon contributing newly-recorded acoustic versions of several of the songs. On the occasion of the album's re-release, we spoke with Dolby about his experiences working with McAloon and the band on the album, as well as revisiting the material when he sat down to re-master it last year. 

Beyond that, however, we did manage to squeeze in several questions about his solo career and how he's perceived by the mainstream, his guest appearances on other artists' albums (he played on Def Leppard's Pyromania, you know), and, just under the wire, we even slipped in a question about his soundtrack work on – wait for it – "Howard the Duck." 

Bullz-Eye: Hello? 

Thomas Dolby: Hello, is this Will? 

BE: This is. 

TD: Hi, Will, it's Thomas Dolby. 

BE: Hey, how are you? 

TD: Good, how are you? 

BE: Not bad! 

TD: Well, all right. Sorry to call outside the allotted time. (Writer's note: although the publicist for Prefab Sprout's label had sent an E-mail with the designated interview time, Dolby hadn't actually checked his mail in several days. Fortunately, once the publicist finally got hold of him, he gladly offered to call me a short while later.) 

BE: That's okay. But, now, my new first question is, "How can someone so irrevocably tied to technology go so long without checking his E-mail?" (Laughs) 

TD: A-ha. (Silence) 

BE: (Realizes the joke has gone over like a lead balloon, attempts to save face) But, no, I'm very excited about talking to you. Let's start off, I guess, talking about your move from recording your own work to producing the work of others. So, your first production job was with Joni Mitchell…? 

TD: No, actually, Prefab Sprout was my first production job. 

BE: (Surprised and embarrassed) Oh. Okay. Huh. All Music Guide has your work with Joni Mitchell and George Clinton before that of Prefab. 

TD: Yeah, well, no, Prefab Sprout was earlier. 

BE: (Feels flop sweat beginning but struggles valiantly onward nonetheless) How did you get that gig in the first place? 

TD: With the Sprout? 

BE: Rght, yes. 

"Basically, (Paddy MacAloon's) bed was built on a stack of lyric sheets. He pulled a stack of them out and he squinted at them, and strummed them and sang them to me. And I picked my favorites, he put maybe 15 down on a cassette, and that became Steve McQueen."

TD: I was a guest reviewer on a BBC radio talk show called "Round Table," and we were reviewing new singles, and I had a couple of Radio 1 DJs saying very things about all these records that I hated… (Laughs) …and came round to a song by Prefab Sprout called "Don't Sing," from Swoon. And I loved it. And it so happened that the band were listening in, because they knew their song was going to be on…and they were holding their breaths, 'cause they thought I was going to slaughter it. But they were very relieved when I said nice things about it! And one thing led to another, and they said they were just about to start recording their second album, and was I interested in producing them? They didn't have any demos to play me or anything, but they invited me up to their house in the north of England, and I sat for a day and listened to songs that Paddy…basically, his bed was built on a stack of lyric sheets! And he pulled a stack of them out, and he squinted at them and strummed them and sang them to me. And I picked my favorites, he put maybe 15 down on a cassette, and that became Steve McQueen.

BE: Before you heard their song on that radio show, had their name ever crossed your path before? 

TD: I don't think it had, no. 

BE: So did Paddy enter the sessions with an existing vision of how he wanted the album to sound, or did he just say, y'know, "Do what you do"? 

TD: Looking back, he gave me a remarkable amount of freedom. The biggest role…the biggest challenge, I think, really, for my role was that because Paddy writes lyrics first and then adds the music, you end up with some bars that have three beats and some phrases that have five bars in them, and some awkward key changes and chord changes. And when you arrange that for a five-piece band, it can sound a little bit grating. And, so, the first thing I was able to do was sort of lend some of my arranging experience, because, y'know, I'd played in various configurations of bands myself and arranged my own album with a band, and so on. So the pre-production work was really crucial. And I've always felt that, with the right arrangement, the production basically takes care of itself. And, so, by the time we got the studio, we'd already done a lot of the preparation work. Of course, there were still some nice surprises in the studio, but mainly it was a case of keeping everybody in a good mood, keeping the energy level up, and capturing the best performances vocally and instrumentally. 

BE: Did the songs evolve a great deal from how he originally envisioned them to how they ended up on the album, once you'd given your touch to them? 

TD: I think some did and some didn't. I mean, there were some songs where I would get focused on one or two elements, and I'd say, "Look, this is really great, but I don't think we need this stuff; maybe you could trim it a little bit." Paddy was amazingly patient about it. He could've so easily been possessive about it and said, "No, that's not the way we do it." Some of them were songs that, as a band, they'd played in pubs years before, and they didn't have a lot of objectivity about them. (Laughs) But, no, he gave me a free hand, and everybody seemed to like the results as they started to emerge, so we just hit on a winning formula. 

BE: Going in, did you imagine how much vocal diversity Paddy had in him? I mean, most of the time, he's smooth as silk, but he can certainly rage when he wants to. 

TD: Well, I encouraged him to rage whenever he could, because I think that juxtaposition is really great. There's only a couple of times that he really lets rip, although we have some interesting outtakes… (Laughs) …after a few brown ales! But, no, I mean, listening back to his catalog, I think it's nice on his early ones where… (Hesitates) He's a very retiring kind of guy, a retiring kind of personality…he has such a hermit-like existence at this point…but there's a side of him which is very brazen: an exhibitionist, which only comes out from time to time. But it's very nice if you can catch that on tape, because it offsets the smoothness of most of his vocals. 

BE: How was it for you to approach the album for re-mastering after having been away from it for so long? Did you feel that it had held up pretty well? 

"I still think the demo version (of Prefab Sprout's "Wild Horses") is superior to the album version. But Paddy would never agree with that, because he has the sense that things need to be professionally produced and recorded." TD: Oh, it's great. Yeah, I mean, it's just great to put it up on big speakers. And I knew that the mastering room that I went to, they'd be delighted to hear music like it used to be done. I think many mastering engineers these days are in despair because, y'know, most people just sort of try out pre-sets 1 – 12 on their computer and go with #7, and that's it. So mastering is something of a lost art. Especially because, in those days, you were mastering for vinyl, and it's very hard to cut music onto vinyl. You have to make some sacrifices. The image of the mastering engineer in those days, kind of gazing through a microscope at the grooves on his acetate…it's almost like H.G. Wells technology. It's very different from today, where you're manipulating wave forms on the computer screen. But my goal, to go back to your question, was not to reinterpret the album; it was just to take advantage of new mastering technologies, get a good level and keep everything clear and separate, and make a digital version of the song that had the warmth of the original vinyl. 

BE: I presume you've heard the acoustic versions that Paddy recorded for the reissue. 

TD: Yeah. 

BE: What did you think about the new arrangements? 

TD: Well, y'know, initially, obviously, it's always a little bit of a shock to hear something that you've lived with for a couple of decades played so differently, but I welcome the differences, actually. I think that, as a performer, you evolve, and your material over the years…he's a different person from what he was when he was 21. One of the downsides of the conventional music industry was that you were forced to capture a single snapshot of a song and then live or die by it for decades to come, whereas, in reality, the natural way to perform a song varies according to who the audience is, the mood and the context. The version you play in a sweaty pub is very different from the one you play in a winery on a mid-summer's evening. 

BE: Were any of these new arrangements similar to how he'd originally presented the songs to you before you began producing the album? 

TD: Actually, no, which was kind of surprising to me. When the project originally got going, the label knew of the existence of some demos of the Steve McQueen songs that Paddy had made for me at the time, but Paddy was resistant to putting those on the album, mainly because A) he had literally recorded them into a portable cassette player with a cheap microphone, and B) I'd asked him to record the songs so I had kind of a working scratch pad in preparation for the album, so he just got them down, and he didn't put a lot of effort into the performance of them. And I think he felt also that it would've weighted people's opinion too much in the area of, "Well, this is a production masterpiece!" (Laughs) But, I mean, his demos are fascinating. I've got demos over the years of things that he's sent me, and the challenge for me, often, was that the demo was so great that, y'know, what the heck was I going to do in the studio to improve on it? Many…well, not many songs, but I'd say a handful of songs that I produced for them, I never really felt that I improved on the demo. 

BE: Can you think of any examples? 

TD: (Exhales deeply) Sure: "Wild Horses," a song from Jordan: the Comeback. It was just absolutely dead simple, a sample and guitar and this drum loop on the original. Whenever he'd send me a set of demos, it would always be, like, the worst time for me to commit to doing an album for them, because I was always committed to doing something else. But I'd say, "All right, I'll give it a listen, but I'm probably not available." And then there'd be one song on the demo tape that I would just fall head over heels in love with, and, at that point, I couldn't not do the album! And in the case of Jordan: the Comeback, it was "Wild Horses." And I still think the demo version is superior to the album version. But Paddy would never agree with that, because he has the sense that things need to be professionally produced and recorded, and he never releases demos. I mean, with his home recording over the years, he's improved a lot, and he's had at least a couple of entire album projects that never saw the light of day. And I always try to persuade him that, in the age of the internet, who needs a label, y'know…? You can just put this stuff out. He could put out four albums a year quite easily and build a fan base by the internet. You can say goodbye to ever seeing your face floor to ceiling in a Tower Records window, but that seems to me is a worthwhile sacrifice to make. 

BE: That's what Nik Kershaw is doing now. 

TD: Is he, indeed? 

BE: Absolutely. So, obviously, since you went on to work together with Paddy again, you had a good rapport; do you think that Steve McQueen is the best of the three albums you worked on with Prefab Sprout? 

On touring with BT:  "It was an interesting experience, really, because he started right about the time that I stopped, and, like me, he was commercially more successful with someone that wasn't necessarily closest to his heart."

TD: I'd say, on the balance of things. I mean, From Langley Park to Memphis I only did four songs on. You know, three of their albums parallel three of mine – The Flat Earth and Steve McQueen, Aliens Ate My Buick and From Langley Park to Memphis, and Astronauts and Heretics and Jordan: the Comeback – and had a lot in common in many ways. And the second of those was tongue-in-cheek, glossy, and oversaturated, and the third of them was a sort of deep, literate work, very introspective and has spawned a lot of columns about analysis over the years… (Chuckles) …but, probably, I would say that probably both of them somehow lack the simple naivete and beauty of Steve McQueen and The Flat Earth. So I think that, in the balance of things, that's probably the best album…although, in many ways, we tried hardest with Jordan: the Comeback, because it was just a massive work. To me, there was sort of a James Joyce-ian scale to it. And it took a lot of time. It took nine months to record, and we put a lot of effort into it. But, sometimes, the payback is less than with the four-week album where you didn't really know what you were doing. (Laughs) 

BE: Do you have any idea why the B-sides from the era didn't end up on the reissue? I mean, I know that B-sides by their nature are often intended to be disposable, but, still, the fans want to hear them! 

TD: Yeah, I dunno. When you're presented with a project like this, it's always a little bit…there's a bit of a conflict, because there's a side of you that says, "Leave well enough alone, it was what it was." And it's one thing to re-release it, but it's another to change the content or line-up or whatever, and there's a side of you that sort of says, "Well, that smacks of a record company trying to add bonus tracks for extra value," or something like that. So it's always a little hard, I think, with these things to think, "Well, what's the best thing for the album?" And at the end of the day, we just decided that we would just give a slightly more modern sheen to the original recordings, and that Paddy would take a few of the songs and just reinterpret them in the context of today, and hoped that that reflected some light back onto the originals. 

BE: Okay, now I've got a couple of quick questions about your music career, but as long as we're talking about work you've done on other people's albums, I thought I'd start by asking if you remember anything about the experience of working on Robyn Hitchcock's Black Snake Diamond Role

TD: Um…very little. I think I twiddled a knob, and that was it. I was the sea, as I recall. I think I probably just had some white noise in the Moog, and then made waves. (Writer's note: Dolby's actual credit in the album is "Ocean," but, yeah, that's the extent of his contribution. It's on a lovely song called "Love.") 

BE: How did it come about that you were on the album? 

TD: Well, a friend of mine, Matthew Seligman, played bass both with me and with The Soft Boys, so I rubbed shoulders with Robyn over the years. I can't remember the sequence of things, but he also did a voice for me on The Flat Earth; he did the voice of Keith (on "White City"). Robyn has this amazing ability to just start rambling, this Monty Python style rambling… 

BE: Yes, I've interviewed him, so I know. (Laughs) 

TD: I've never actually attended one of his sound checks, but I'd bet that, when they ask him to test his microphones, he just goes off for an hour. (Laughs) 

BE: Someone recently provided me with a copy of Pleasure, by Girls at Our Best.  

TD: (A few seconds of silence) Okay. 

BE: (Laughs) Um, which you were on…? 

TD: Yeah, I was. I don't really remember much of what I did, but it vaguely rings a bell. (Laughs) 

BE: Do you remember any more about working on Def Leppard's Pyromania

TD: I remember a lot about that, yeah. Pyromania and, also, Hysteria I did a little bit of work on.  

BE: Oh, that I didn't realize. 

TD: Well, I'd known Mutt Lange for awhile. He was a partner in Zomba, who were my publishing company. In fact, indirectly, I owe a lot to him for just getting discovered, because I'd sent some tapes in to Zomba, and they played them for Mutt, and Mutt said, "Well, the keyboard playing is fantastic. Is he available to come and do this Foreigner album I'm working on?" At the time, I was living as a busker and totally destitute, so it was very nice to get a call from New York, saying, "Would you come over and do a few days special work?" And then, when that album came out, my keyboard playing was very prominent and was a big change for Foreigner, and it was massive on the radio and stuff, and it attracted a lot of attention for me. And the flip side of it was that I'd also written a song for Lene Lovich that was getting played in colleges and in clubs… 

BE: "New Toy"? 

TD: Right, yeah, "New Toy." So, suddenly, I had a calling card at record labels, and they were very keen to hear my own stuff, so that was a big boost for me. And I really loved working with Mutt. He's a real taskmaster, and he can take all night to do twenty-five takes of a very simple part, but I liked working with him. I liked his sternness, and I learned a lot from him, and he was a great guy. So he asked me to come back in for his next project, which was Def Leppard, and which was never exactly my style of music. Def Leppard albums are basically Mutt Lange albums with Joe singing lead; they were really Mutt's albums. And that's about all I remember! 

BE: Now, as far as your music goes, I actually saw you headlining at the Rams Head in Maryland, then I saw you opening for BT at the NorVa. 

TD: Oh, right, yeah. 

BE: In the spoken-word portion of your show, you make the comment that one of the big reasons you decided to go back out on the road was a desire to change the perception that you're "an '80s artist." Do you think the recent tours have helped change that? 

On doing the soundtrack for "Howard the Duck": "When people ask me what movies I've scored, I sort of go… (Makes muffled, unintelligible sound) …or I mention that I worked at LucasFilms for awhile, and they go, 'Oh, what movies did you work on?' And I go, 'Oh, I forget the name…'" TD: I think they certainly have, actually. And it's sort of interesting that…I don't know if you've ever come across Google alerts, but you can create a Google alert for "Thomas Dolby," and any instance of those two words together on the web gets E-mailed to you. So, every day, I get a Google alert, and there's usually between three and ten references, and some are in blogs and some are in reviews, but, over time, you save them, and it makes an interesting barometer of what the overall public perception of you is. As you pointed out, my goal for that was… (Pauses) That was kind of back in the time where there was a lot of nostalgic interest in '80s music, and there were a lot of top-100 countdowns on VH-1 of the hundred greatest music videos from the '80s. And I'm an obvious feature in things like that. But I didn't…I feel as though there's a thin line that you tread with this stuff, which is that, well, if there's enough interest, you can go back on the road again and play a few casinos and cash in on that nostalgia trip…whereas my favorite artists that were my contemporaries in the '80s actually transcended the decades. A lot of them – Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Van Morrison – were all sort of middle-aged and balding when I first got into them in the '70s, so it's not like you go see them play now and make comments about how many inches they've put on 'round their girth, or how many inches their hairlines have receded, or whatever. And, in a way, I wanted to make sure…and the work that I'm doing now, I wanted to make sure I'm listed with those guys rather than various '80s bands that I won't name that are out treading the boards again. But the ultimate test of that is, how much validity is there to the new music that you do? And I didn't feel that, after twelve or fifteen years away from making music, I could just go back into the studio and make a brand new album without having got back out there and seeing what was going on with the world. It would've been too much of a vacuum. So I wanted to get face to face with audiences, both my long-term, loyal audiences from the first time around, and also see what kind of younger people were coming to the shows, who presumably had only discovered me in the interim. So from that point of view, it was educational as well as a lot of fun. 

BE: Did BT's audiences readily accept you? 

TD: I think they did, actually, yeah. It was an interesting experience, really, because he started right about the time that I stopped, and, like me, he was commercially more successful with someone that wasn't necessarily closest to his heart. So the music he was playing at those shows was the quieter, more ambient side of what he does, which I find, personally, a lot more interesting. But, then, I'm not much of a clubber, so the other stuff wouldn't interest me. Of his audiences that came, there were some that were a little bit frustrated that he wasn't playing beats, but, often, that was because the venues hadn't done enough to make it clear that he was playing music from this binary universe and not just playing a dance set. But a lot of them stuck around for my set, y'know, because it varied some nights. We switched it around, and I would play after him sometimes. 

BE: Yeah, I was going to say, because at the NorVa, you opened for him. 

TD: Well, it was, in theory, a co-headlining situation… (Writer's note: although Dolby said this with good humor, his tone changed just enough to indicate that the distinction was, indeed, an important one…but, really, can you blame him?) 

BE: Sorry, I should've said that you went on first. 

TD: …but, yeah, I mean, his audiences seemed to be quite receptive, and many of them said that they'd never heard of me prior to this, but they were big enough BT fans that getting the BT stamp of approval was enough for them to shell out for one of my albums and check me out. So that was good. And it's good because I need some fans who'll still be alive in twenty years! (Laughs) 

BE: So have you now gone back into the studio, then? 

TD: In the studio? No. I mean, my studio is my laptop at this point. I'm beginning to write some new material, and whether I'll wait until I've got an album's worth and put it out as an album or do it piecemeal as an EP there and a download there or a song on a movie, I don't know. 

BE: And my last question: I have spent the last twenty years with the hook to the theme song for "Howard the Duck" stuck in my head… 

TD: (Laughs) 

BE: …and I was just wondering about whether, if they were to do a special edition DVD release of the film, you would willingly contribute to any retrospective featurettes? 

TD: Ummmmmmm… (Exhales heavily) That's certainly a barbed question! (Laughs) There's a side of me that says "no." When people ask me what movies I've scored, I sort of go… (Makes muffled, unintelligible sound) …or I mention that I worked at LucasFilms for awhile, and they go, "Oh, what movies did you work on?" And I go, "Oh, I forget the name…" 

BE: (Laughs) 

TD: So I don't know. Yes, I would probably contribute to it. I mean, I'm not ashamed of the music for that movie. I thought the music was actually great. The movie went a bit off the rails, but it's not like it's the worst movie ever made. It's certainly been superseded many times since by blockbuster-budget movies that didn't exactly break the box office. 

BE: All right, well, I appreciate you getting up with me. 

TD: Good! 

BE: And thanks a lot for your time. 

TD: I'm actually going to be touring again in your area in September. 

BE: Oh, excellent! Maybe we can chat again then; I had actually hoped to do an interview with you when you came around here the last time, but it didn't pan out. 

TD: Oh, right, well, I'm back at the Rams Head on… (Pauses) Is the Rams Head close to you? 

BE: Well, actually, I'm in Norfolk, so the Rams Head's about four hours away. 

TD: Oh, okay. I'm trying to think: is Pittsburgh any closer to you? 

BE: No, DC and Maryland are definitely closer.  

TD: Oh, really? Okay. Well, at the moment, I don't think we have Norfolk in there… 

BE: Fair enough. 

TD: …but if you get a chance to mention it, probably by the time you publish this, there'll be info on my website about the September tour. 

BE: No problem. That way, we can make the piece as up to date as possible. 

TD: All right, thanks very much!